The stories of Greek Mythology were the heart and soul of the people of Ancient Greece, and played a huge role in determining how the people lived their lives. The first written tales in Greek Mythology were actually written well after the stories were first told. And even today, they play a huge role in contemporary art and culture, with Zeus, Poseidon, Hercules and many other famous Gods and heroes making multiple appearances in movies and books, like in the Percy Jackson series of novels for young adults and films like Troy (2004), starring Brad Pitt, and Jason and the Argonauts (1963), featuring Nancy Kovack. The men and women from these stories are the stuff of legends, and to make life a little more legendary, here are 6 amazing adventures from Greek Mythology you might not know.
1. Theseus and the Minotaur
(Theseus and the Minotaur, Tuileries Garden, Paris)
Theseus was raised in the palaces of Troezen, a small town southwest of Athens, by his mother Aethra, daughter of Pittheus, who was the King of Troezen. When he grew up, he found himself more and more curious about the identity of his father and soon discovered that his mother, at the time of his conception had two suitors; Poseidon, God of the Sea and brother of Zeus, and King Aegeus, the King of Athens. Determined to find answers, he made his way to Athens, where he would encounter a number of dangerous enemies all of whom he was victorious against, like Medea, the sorceress,. Of all his victories, however, his greatest was his triumph against King Minos of Crete.
At a time of tyranny and terror for the people of Athens, every year 14 Athenians, 7 men and 7 women, were sent to Crete to be sacrifices to the Minotaur (part-man and part-bull), as compensation for the killing of Androgeus, the son of King Minos. The Minotaur was a monster that resided in a labyrinth under the palace of King Minos, believed to be the anomalous offspring of the King’s wife, Pasiphae, and a Cretan Bull. She didn't have any particular affection for cows, she was cursed by a God to fall in love with the bull as a punishment to the king.
(Temple of Theseus in Vienna)
In the third year of the sacrifices, unable to stand this cruel practice, Theseus volunteered to be one of the sacrifices sent to Crete. The daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, is said to have fallen in love with Theseus at first sight, and agreed to help him defeat the Minotaur if he agreed to marry her. Theseus agreed and Ariadne, fulfilling her end of the deal, provided Theseus with a ball of string forged by Hephaestus, on the advice of the creator of the Minotaur’s labyrinth, Daedalus.
Like a trail of bread crumbs, Theseus used the string to make sure he could find his way back out as he journeyed to the center of the labyrinth. There he finds the Minotaur, and using all the strength he had left, overpowered the flesh-hungry beast, and freed both the nations of the Athens and Crete. He returned to Athens, with Ariadne, where he was crowned king.
Thesues’ heroic stories teaches us that you can beat the toughest monsters in the darkest places, as long as you know you can find your way back home.
2. Bellerophon and the Pegasus
(The Pegasus Gallery Statue in Milan, Italy)
This hero was the child of Poseidon, the God of the Sea, and Eurynome, wife of Glaucus, a fisherman who raised Bellerophon, unaware of his true paternity. Perhaps due to his relationship with Poseidon or Glaucus’ love of horses (it’s a question of nature versus nurture, I suppose), Bellerophon took on quest to find the winged horse Pegasus. The Pegasus was the beautiful wild offspring of Medusa and Poseidon, born from the blood of Medusa when she was killed by Perseus, a tale depicted in many beautiful artworks. Despite many unsuccessful attempts to tame the creature, a task rumoured to be impossible, but still determined to reach his goal, he turned to the Gods for help.
On the instructions of the seer Polyeidus, Bellerophon spends a night in one of Athena’s temples and awakens to find a magical golden bridle, gifted to him by Athena. After showing his gratitude by paying tribute to both Athena and Poseidon, he finds the meadow where the winged stallion is grazing. Knowing he has the blessings of the Gods, Bellerophon approaches the horse with the bridle and succeeds in mounting and taming the majestic and powerful beast. Aided by the divine, and with Pegasus by his side, he sets out to marry the woman he loves, Aethra, daughter of King Pittheus (and mother of Theseus). But in a tragic turn, he accidentally takes the life of another man and is exiled. He turns to King Proetus of Argos and Tiryns, who pardons him. Following this, the King’s wife attempts to seduce him, but is rejected by Bellerophon, who was an honorable man.
After being rejected by Bellerophon, the King’s wife accuses him of attempting to seduce her. Not wishing to offend the Gods by slaying a house guest, he directs the young man and his Pegasus to King Iobates, father of his wife, with a message to the King about the accusations against Bellerophon.
King Iobates, also not wanting to offend the Gods, tried to get rid of Bellerophon in a more creative way; by sending him to complete a series of heroic tasks, with the hope that they would ultimately lead to his demise.
A proficient archer and a courageous man, Bellerophon and his noble steed proceeded to kill the deadly Chimaera, conquer the neighboring tribe of Solymi, and defeat the Amazons. King Iobates finally unleashed his entire army on the duo, in a last ditch effort to kill the man and instead watched every last warrior in the army die. Realising that Bellerophon has been blessed by the Gods, the King chose to befriend the young hero, giving him half of his kingdom, and allowing him to marry his daughter.
He lived out the next few years of his life happily, and as king, he was adored by all his subjects, but in a moment of arrogance, attempts to ride Pegasus up to Mount Olympus to see the Gods. This boldness enrages Zeus who causes Bellerophon to fall and be severely injured. Because of Zeus’s anger towards him, he is shunned by other people and spends the rest of his life wandering on his own. For all the honor he earned in his life, he was brought down by his own hubris and the very Gods who once blessed him.
3. Cadmus and the City of Thebes
Prince of the Phoenician city Tyre, and child of King Agenor and Queen Telephassa of Tyre, Cadmus was most well known for bringing the Phoenician alphabet to the Greek people, who adapted it to their language. He grew up a hero, warrior and god-fearing man. His childhood days were without much incident but as he approached manhood, tragedy struck and his sister Europa, while out picking flowers one day, was kidnapped by Zeus.
Unbeknownst to her brothers and her parents, the formidable God took her back to the city of Crete, where she wed a local king and became Crete’s first Queen. However, her family continued the search for her and King Agenor instructed his sons to go out and find her and warned them that they would not be permitted to return without her.
Cadmus was left in a difficult position, desperately searching for his sister but also cautious not to offend the Gods, particularly the one by whom she was taken. After years of searching to no avail, and unable to return back to their home due to the decree of their father and king, Cadmus and his brother and mother (who accompanied her sons), began to settle in different places.
Eventually his brother found a city he chose to stay back in and shortly thereafter his mother passed on, still mourning her lost daughter. Cadmus said his farewell to his mother, his determination to find his sister only strengthened further by the loss. He approached the Oracle of Delphi for help finally, who told him to let go of his search for his sister and instead find a cow with a half-moon symbol on it.
The oracle instructed him to follow the cow to its resting place and on that very spot, he was to build a city. Accompanied by his friends, Cadmus found the cow, and decided to sacrifice the cow to Athena as a tribute for blessing him. He sent his friends to a spring to fetch pure water for the tribute, where they were all killed by a Dragon, who was the son of Ares, God of War.
Cadmus went in search of his friends and on discovering their corpses, slayed the Dragon, inviting the wrath and fury of Ares down upon him. Cadmus accepted his punishment, and offered Ares his servitude for eight years. He then returned to the spot where the cow had laid to rest and there, on instructions from Athena, he buried the teeth of the Dragon under the dirt and watched as a number of fully armed and full-grown warriors sprouted from the ground.
The warriors fought each other fiercely and mercilessly until there were only 5 left. These 5 were called the Spartoi, otherwise known as the “Sown men”. They pledged their undying loyalty to Cadmus and helped him build his city, the magnificent city of Thebes (originally called Cadmea). Knowing happiness could never be his with the wrath of Areas bearing down on him, he completed his eight years of servitude to the God and earned his forgiveness. In fact, the God of War even granted the young King permission to marry his daughter Harmonia.
Unfortunately, tragedy was written in the stars of Cadmus and over the following years, his 5 children suffered greatly from many despairs and losses. Cadmus, followed dutifully by Harmonia, moved from place to place searching for a land free of troubles, and despite being loved and worshipped by those around him, remained miserable as despair continued to follow his family.
Believing a serpent or dragon would find more happiness than him, Bellerophon prays for his misery to end, and Ares grants him his wish and turns him into a dragon. Devastated by the change of her husband, Harmonia begs to follow him, and so Zeus, in a rare moment of pity, turns her into a dragon as well and takes both of them to the Elysian Fields to carry on with their afterlife in peace.
4. Prometheus, the Champion of Man
(By Paul Manship, Prometheus (1934), a fountain sculpture at Rockefeller Center in New York)
Prometheus was a hero of his own accord, and only pledged allegiance to the side of righteousness and refused to be bound by the decisions of those around him and more powerful than him. He was the child of a Titan, Iapetus, and an Oceanid (water nymphs born from the Titan Oceanus) named Clymene.
Despite being a Titan, the tyrannical blood from which the Old Gods of Greek Mythology sprang, Prometheus had a great deference for humankind. In fact, some stories tell that he created human beings from water and earth, while others say he and Athena together sculpted clay figures of human beings and breathed life into them. This story is very similar to that of the birth of DC Comic’s Wonder Woman, Princess and eventual Queen of the Amazons, who was created from sand and clay, and though her story is fictitious, the Amazons themselves were a crucial part of Greek Mythology.
As it turned out, the fore-thinking Prometheus had a much larger role to play in the birth of humanity than just their creation. However, his biggest role in Greek Mythology was during the Titanomachy, the epic war waged between the Titans, the rulers and reigning Gods at that time, and the Greek Gods we know(Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, etc.).
Time for a story within a story.
The Titans were first ruled by Uranus, who imprisoned some of his children in the underground pit of Tartarus, from which there is said to be no escape. This enraged his wife, who then created a giant sickle, used by their son Cronus to emasculate and overthrow his father and take his throne. But Uranus cursed him, saying that his sons too would one day rise up against him and overthrow him, as he had done to his father. And so Cronus took what he deemed to be appropriate precautionary methods, sending his siblings to the fiery pit of Tartarus to live out eternity.
For his own children he left a more terrible fate, and instead swallowed them whole. His wife, seeing the madness of her husband, managed to save one of their children and sent him to Earth, where he was raised by Amalthea, a goat (yes, a goat), in the city of Crete. This child was none other than the Great Wielder of Thunder and Lightning, Zeus. When Zeus came of age, he slyly made his way to his father’s side, unbeknownst to Cronus, and caused him to regurgitate the remainder of his children. Now aided by his siblings, Demeter, Hestia, Hera, Poseidon and Hades, Zeus mounted a full-scale war to overthrow the tyrannical Titan, and all those who fought by him.
Back to the story of Prometheus, who was a Titan himself, he was forced to pick sides during the time of the Titanomachy. Despite what his allegiance was expected to be, Prometheus and his dutiful brother abandoned the Titans and fought beside Zeus and the other Gods to overthrow the Titans. All the Titans, excepting, of course, Prometheus and his brother, were thrown into Tartarus, and Zeus and his allies proceeded to take their place as rulers of Man.
Prometheus enjoyed a friendship with Zeus for quite some time before a disagreement arose between the two regarding what Prometheus considered to be unfair and unkind treatment of humankind at the hands of Zeus. When Zeus refused to change his ways, Prometheus decided to take matters into his own hands and stole fire from Mount Olympus and introduced it to humans. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Prometheus’ defiance against Zeus did not go unpunished. First, he chose to punish all of mankind, with the creation of Pandora and her box, which, when opened, released all pain and disease into the world. But it didn’t end there. The God of Thunder then chained the Titan to a rock and sent an eagle to tear apart a piece of Prometheus’ liver every day. The Titan’s liver would then regrow at night, so his punishment could go on for all eternity. Their enmity finally ended when the son of Zeus, Heracles (also known as Hercules), freed Prometheus from the rock, without any interruption or challenge from his all-powerful father.
5. Orpheus and his love.
(The Cave of Orpheus)
Son of the beautiful Muse, Calliope and King Oeagrus of Thrace (though some legends say he was the child of Apollo, the Sun God), Orpheus was a poet and musician. Growing up in the peaceful region of Thessaly, he was taught to play the lyre by none other than Apollo, the only God he ever worshipped, and his music was believed to have a power of its own.
When Jason set out on his quest to find the Golden Fleece (another one of those stories where a man is sent out on an impossible task by someone secretly hoping they won’t survive, but invariably making them a hero instead), Orpheus was one of the many Argonauts (named for the ship they made the journey on, the Argo) who accompanied him. On their way back, after having successfully obtained the Golden Fleece, and weary from their struggles, they faced a series of new obstacles, one of which was the Sirens.
The Sirens were deadly creatures, and in some depictions made after The Odyssey, they were potrayed as women with bird-like faces. They would enchant passing sailors with their beautiful song and lure them to their deaths. While many a ship and sailors were lost to the Sirens enticing voices, when the Argo crossed their paths, the ship sailed through unharmed. This was because Orpheus and his lyre were there, playing a melodic and powerful tune that drowned out the song of the Sirens. The ship passed by safely, though one member was so drawn in by the song of the Sirens, he dove into the water and began swimming toward them. But a happy ending awaited him too, as he was saved by Aphrodite.
An interesting story about the Sirens: Odysseus (not to be confused with Orpheus), during his journey home from the Trojan War was warned by the sorceress Circe of the power of the Sirens. He was determined to hear the song and just had to know what the allure was. He had his crew tie him to the mast of the ship and tighten the ropes every time he tried to break free. No mortal was ever to hear the song of the Sirens and live to speak about it. When Odysseus crossed by them unharmed, shamed by their defeat, they jumped into the sea and their song was never heard again.
Orpheus and his lyre were also famous for their trip to the underworld together. It began with a love story. Orpheus used to roam the valleys of Thessaly with his lyre, always strumming a tune and singing along, until one day he stopped and played beside a stream. It was there that he first laid eyes on Eurydice, a beautiful and lonely young woman, absolutely enchanted by his music.
Every day he returned to the stream to play his song, as did Eurydice, to hear it. And so, with music, their friendship and love blossomed. But a task given by Apollo sends Orpheus far away and Eurydice returns to wandering the hills alone. One day she was attacked and bitten by a viper. Orpheus returns to find her dead and his heart is shattered. So he travels to the Underworld to bring her back to Earth to be with him.
Armed with his lyre and his enthralling music, Orpheus charms his way past Cerberus, the massive three-headed dog guarding the gates, and convinces Charon to ferry him across the River Styx. He approaches Hades, who sits besides his wife, Persephone (daughter of Demeter), and begs Hades to return his love to his side. Hades agrees on the condition that as Orpheus is leading her out of Hades’ Realm, he may not look back at her until they reach the land of the living. Orpheus tries but cannot stop himself from turning to check that his Eurydice is really with him. As soon as he does, her soul is dragged back to the depths of the Underworld. And Orpheus had to return to the world of Man without her.
6. Atlanta (Atalanta) and the Calydonian Boar
Atlanta was a child of almost unknown lineage, whose mother presumably died while giving birth to her and whose father abandoned her in the woods of Arcadia and left her for the elements to devour. However, the child, being blessed by Artemis herself, the Goddess of the Hunt, was picked up and nursed to health by a she-bear, who raised her out in the woods until the young girl was taken in by some hunters.
In the village of the hunters, she grew up strong, fast, bold and absolutely beautiful (they always do in these stories). She was able to run as fast as any man, faster even than some, and could fight and hunt better than most. Her name is said to have been derived from the Greek word, atalantos, which means “equal in weight”. Perhaps her name was predicting that the young woman would grow up to humble many a men with her hunting skills which were at least equal to, if not far surpassing, the skills of most men.
While most men disliked and often scorned Atlanta, dismissing her victories and refusing to participate in any hunts with a woman, there were quite a few young men who were infatuated with this strong and powerful warrior. Not that she ever encouraged it. As a show of her faith to the Goddess Artemis, the Huntress, Atlanta sacredly protected her virginity. Many tried to claim it, including 2 centaurs (half-man and half-horse creatures), but she shot them down without a second thought, so fierce and formidable a hunter was she.
Her most well-known feat is her triumph against the Calydonian Boar. As punishment to the King of Calydon for not paying tribute to Artemis, when making offerings to all the other Gods, she sent down the massive, wild and angry Calydonian Boar. The creature wreaked havoc in the city of Calydon, destroying houses, crops, farms, and killing many people. The King, determined not to make another error in judgment, immediately pulled together a band of hunters to set forth and take down the colossal beast, with Atlanta standing at the head of it.
The King, for added incentive, gave the hunters a challenge stating that whoever killed the boar would be permitted to keep its skin. But most of the men refused to be led by a woman, even if that woman had defeated more male warriors in battle than could be counted. Surprisingly enough, it was the son of the king, Meleager, who convinced the men to let Atlanta lead, as he was one of the men who was awestruck by her strength and character and rather fancied her (even though he was a married man).
Out in the hunt, Atlanta was the first to find and shoot the beast, followed quickly by another, severely wounding the animal. It was finally Meleager, ever excitable, who ran forward and made one final mortal wound with his spear. And so it was that Meleager was given the skin of the boar which he promptly gifted to Atlanta, knowing her to be the true victor.
Less than thrilled by this emasculating concession, and believing such a prize belong to them and not a women, the other hunters, some of whom were Meleagers uncles, stole back the skin from Atlanta. But it was returned quickly when an enraged Meleager fought and killed the other hunters. Unfortunately, Meleager paid for this crime with his life, a punishment given to him by his own mother who could not forgive her son for killing her brother.
Atlanta’s father eventually finds his daughter again and on seeing the beautiful powerful woman she has become, insists she gets married. She agrees to marry only the man who can beat her in a race. Melanion, her would-be husband, defeats her in this race solely with the help of Aphrodite who gave him 3 golden apples. He laid these apples on the ground as they raced, which distracted Atlanta just enough to allow him to win.
However, shortly after this, Aphrodite, enraged that Melanion never made tribute to her in gratitude for the gifts she gave him, cursed him and compelled them both to lay in the temple of a deity, (either Zeus or Artemis), where the angered God proceeded to turn them into lions. Although I do think that would have suited Atlanta just fine, the lion-hearted soul she was.